Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
Edited by Nathaniel M. Miles-Yepez
334 pages. Wiley. $27.95.
Reclaiming Jewish Women's Wisdom
By Rabbi Tirzah Firestone
280 pages. HarperSanFrancisco. $24.95
One way to look at a text, writes Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, is to ask, "Does it make my soul bigger rather than smaller?" For his new book, "Wrapped in a Holy Flame," he has collected texts that he believes can inspire new understandings of Judaism and the world. This book, like a recent work by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, argues that one way to enlarge the soul is to expand the canon. Both "Wrapped in a Holy Flame" and Firestone's "The Receiving" demonstrate how widening our breadth of Jewish knowledge and history can improve our spiritual lives.
"Wrapped in a Holy Flame" summarizes and explores the teachings of the major Hasidic masters, beginning with the Baal Shem Tov and the origins of the Hasidic movement, and continuing through modern leaders like the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Schacter-Shalomi's personal friend, the Hasidic folksinger Reb Shlomo Carlebach. Schacter-Shalomi, the unconventional father of Jewish Renewal, ably explains the important themes and legacies of each of these Hasidic giants, and categorizes the teachings of the Hasids in a way that makes them easy to follow and digest. Known for dabbling in other religious traditions, Schacter-Shalomi weaves the Hasidic lessons with teachings from other faiths, including Hinduism, Sufism, and Catholicism. He pairs the teachings of Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of the Tanya, with those of Sri Ramakrishna; he compares the Hasidic concept of the soul coming down to the Tibetan notion of the bardo, the intermediate state between death and rebirth. The author provides solid introductions to the lives of many masters, while peppering his thoughts on them and analysis of their teachings with his personal experiences and short vignettes on topics ranging from sex to tzaddiks.
Schacter-Shalomi wants his somewhat encyclopedic book to provide, for his readers, an encounter with God rather than just with the texts. He suggests that his readers speak the book's lessons aloud, and sing niggunim (Hasidic melodies) before reading. These suggestions demonstrate his Jewish Renewal approach; Jewish Renewal is the expansion of each individual's spiritual canon to include the modern experience, more creativity, and even other faiths. Jewish Renewal rabbis and leaders describe the core of their approach as understanding Judaism--and life, for that matter--as a series of new encounters with the divine. Each teaching and tale in "Wrapped in a Holy Flame" can be understood as one of these new encounters.
For Firestone, whose book "With Roots in Heaven" describes how she left the Orthodox world in which she was raised and eventually returned to Judaism, reclaiming women's place in the canon has allowed her to be comfortable enough in her tradition to reenter it and to disseminate its teachings. Her book is powerful because of its sense of urgency-without these lessons, she would not have found her place in Judaism, and she wants other women to understand these lessons so they can embrace Judaism on a similar, equal footing.
Both these books can be read and appreciated by a wide audience, but they are especially important contributions to the expanding genre of Jewish Renewal literature. Jewish Renewal emerged from "neo-Hasidism," becoming a movement (though its leaders hesitate to term it a "movement") to create a more creative, participatory, feminist Jewish spirituality. The approach to Judaism originated in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, and it continues to grow. ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal boasts a wide network of Jewish Renewal communities under its umbrella and a rabbinic ordination program. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a leading proponent of Jewish Renewal and head of Philadelphia's Shalom Center, one of its earliest outposts, has written, "At the heart of Jewish Renewal is a renewal encounter between God and the Jewish people, and an understanding of Jewish history as a series of renewed encounters with God." Jewish Renewal communities, he has written, are "intimate, participatory, and egalitarian," and "create a 'field of rebbetude'-shared openness to spiritual experience."
These major themes of Jewish Renewal are evident throughout both Schacter-Shalomi's and Firestone's books. With these works, the authors turn to the past to try to help us evolve religiously in the present, and for the future. While not likely to become Jewish Renewal classics like Judith Plaskow's feminist exploration of Judaism, "Standing Again at Sinai," or Waskow's "Godwrestling Round 2," these books are important contributions to this expanding Jewish world. Both authors show, through the examples of great Hasidic masters and both legendary and obscure Jewish women, that each person encounters God in their own new, personal way. Through reading the stories and teachings of the individuals in these books, so can we.